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Different Leaning styles


In the 1970’s a number of different theories relating to how children learn and acquire knowledge were proposed. The uniting characteristic of these theories was simple: individuals vary in how they learn. This certainly seems intuitive: we are all different, so why shouldn't we learn differently?

Advocates of these new theories proposed that students should be assessed and categorized, in order to ascertain which ‘style’ of teaching would best suit them. From the very outset there was criticism regarding this new theory. Daniel T. Willingham was one of the first to openly criticize these new theories, stating that though there is certainly evidence showing that individuals have preferences in how they receive information (visually, aurally etc.) there is no evidence that the differing styles of teaching have any appreciable effect.

Despite numerous detractors, theories of different learning styles were hugely popular throughout the 1970’s, and attracted the endorsement of some of the brightest minds in the education sector. Dozens of researchers are associated with theories promoting these theories of learning. Looked at today, their collective work seems hugely variegated: a smorgasbord of differing theories, each expounded by educational theorists and sociologists and teachers from around the globe, with each quick to publish their work in this exciting new domain.

While most of these theories are long forgotten today, the research of Walter Barbe still attracts some attention, with many teachers being exposed to his work. The VAK model is his most well-known learning style. This is an acronym, standing for Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic. The theory behind this is that every student has a preferential route learning. If a child is struggling to understand a lesson where the teacher is primarily giving a verbal explanation, it could be because they are a visual learner. In this case they will benefit enormously from diagrammatic teaching. If another child is making little progress with aural of visual teaching methods, it might be that they are a Kinesthetic learner, and need a physical component, a hands-on practical approach, to facilitate their understanding.

The VAK model of learning sometimes has a suffix added, an amendment from a later theorist called Fleming, who highlighted that many children learn primarily through reading. The VARK model is introduced to training teachers up to this day, proof that despite the extensive criticism of the 1970’s theories, some have endured the test of time.

While the VARK model is relatively simple to understand, other theories of learning could be complex and technical in the extreme. Perhaps because it was largely a new science, unconstrained by an established academic tradition of normative practices, many of the theories produced seemed just too complicated, and simply impractical to be used as a teaching aid in the classroom. The Kolb system was based on David Kolb’s experiential learning model, which adhered to the "learning through reflection on doing” dictum. This contrasts to the relatively passive role a student takes during didactic or rote memorization forms of teaching. His system demands that each student undergo a personality test, in order to establish which of the four categorize they fit into: accommodators, converters, divergerers or assimilators. Each of these four groups should then be taught in a separate and distinct manner. In his book Experiential Learning, he goes into great detail about how to ascertain each student’s learning style. The ‘Learning Style Inventory’ explains how different students will show marked preferences for one of the four styles: Accommodating, Converging, Diverging and Assimilating.

Kolb’s work is still widely cited, and has been developed extensively over the years, with Peter Honey and Alan Mumford modifying it to work in a managerial setting. They developed a Learning Styles Questionnaire, in order to help classify the individuals into the four categories. Despite its longevity, many have complained that his theories are too impractical, with a 2013 study by the Journal of Psychology and Education stating that the Learning Style Inventory "possesses serious weaknesses.”

These are just two examples from the dozens of learning style theories that emerged in the 70’s and 80’s. Though diverse in their conjectures, they all promote the idea that there are a finite number number of ‘types’ of learners. Criticism for these theories has been strong, with many leading neuroscientists and psychologists questioning the scientific basis for segregating children according to learning styles in the first place. Susan Greenfield, a neurologist and Senior Research Fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford University, has said learning style theories are "nonsense" from a neurological perspective, and that "Humans have evolved to build a picture of the world through our senses working in unison, exploiting the immense interconnectivity that exists in the brain.” Other scientists have voiced similar judgements, while the psychologist Kris Vasquez has expressed the concern that these theories could actually be damaging, since they could lead pupils to impose intellectual constraints upon themselves, in order to fit into the learning category they have been placed in.

The more sobering truth may be that we know next to nothing about how children learn anything. What actually happens in the brain when knowledge is acquired? Children seem to learn naturally, acquiring their first language simply by being immersed in a world of words - a “blooming, buzzing confusion,” as the great psychologist and philosopher William James described a baby’s first experience of the world. How babies actually learn to speak though is still almost a complete mystery. The works of the great linguist Noam Chomsky may be pointing in the right direction here, but this is a new science, and we have barely scratched the surface of it. Rather than developing complex theories about how children lean in the classroom, and seeking to segregate them according to their individual ‘learning style,’ perhaps we should aim for more modest goals: smaller classrooms, with less pupils, so teachers can be more attentive to individuals. Reduce the amount of paperwork, another bureaucratic chores that have crept into the work duties of teachers, and give them more time to actually teach.

21 months ago
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